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Hartnett: ‘Fox Sports 1’ underwhelms (Aug. 29)

By Brian Hartnett | Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Like nearly every avid sports fan that grew up in the late 1990s or early 2000s, my daily morning routine consisted of turning on ESPN and watching as much “SportsCenter” as I could before going to school.

I loved the show for its cool graphics, thorough sports coverage and memorable catchphrases. Quite simply, in an era when the Internet was still developing and social media was still a dream in the minds of budding entrepreneurs, it was my connection to the sporting world.

Unfortunately, somewhere down the line, ESPN shifted its approach from news reporting to loud opining. The network began employing and promoting pundits, such as “First Take” contributor Skip Bayless, who often have bigger egos than the athletes they’re interviewing.

Add in ESPN’s borderline obsession with certain athletes (Tim Tebow, anyone?), frequent misuse of social media (does anyone really care what LeBron James tweets about the Yankees-Red Sox game?) and failure to credit other journalists for many of their scoops, and it’s easy to see why many are now tired of the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

Recently, however, some welcome news came to me and many other sports fans. Not long after NBC launched NBC Sports Network, Fox announced that it would be entering the television market with a 24-hour sports channel of its own, Fox Sports 1. Unlike NBC, which seems content to focus on niche sports for now, Fox did the unthinkable and announced it was planning to directly challenge the evil empire over at ESPN.

As I sit down to write this, it’s been 11 days since the launch of Fox Sports 1, and the network hasn’t exactly loosened ESPN’s grip on the sports world.

In fact, Fox Sports 1 has many of the same problems ESPN had when it launched in 1979 – limited live sporting events, production that is clunky at times and difficulty drawing viewers to the network. The channel’s answer to “SportsCenter,” “Fox Sports Live,” even drew a 0.0 in Monday’s overnight Nielsen ratings.

Now, it’s still too early to write off Fox Sports 1, as many sports fans haven’t even discovered what channel it’s on yet. But there are still several improvements the network can make to help it become the refuge sports fans have been seeking.

One thing Fox Sports 1 can do is tone down the “fun” theme it has been promoting since its launch. It’s fine for a show to bring a little levity to sports, but the antics of “Fox Sports Live’s” hosts, Canadians Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, occasionally border on the verge of ridiculous and detract from the highlights they’re reporting. Similarly, “Fox Sports Live” frequently features so many graphics, most of them with irrelevant information, that it gives the show the feel of a Times Square billboard.

Another issue for Fox Sports 1 is its overreliance on panels, particularly on “Fox Sports Live.” For one, the panels largely consist of former athletes, which isn’t necessarily a formula for success. For every athlete who’s succeeded on television (see Charles Barkley), there have been several who’ve failed (see Jerry Rice). Going along with that theme, it’s a little strange to hear former athletes on Fox Sports 1 discuss sports they’ve never played. Should the average fan care about former quarterback Donovan McNabb’s views on the Dodgers, or former tennis star Andy Roddick’s college football predictions? This issue extends to one of the network’s other main shows, Crowd Goes Wild, which features Regis Philbin and five other media personalities but is a little too cluttered to give us insight into each of the panel members.

One major factor for Fox Sports 1’s survival is the live sports programming it shows. Right now, the network seems to be a little too similar to the Speed Channel, the network it replaced, as it’s shown several NASCAR races thus far. It has also heavily marketed UFC, a sport that hasn’t exactly become mainstream in the United States. But with college football, college basketball and soccer on the horizon, Fox Sports 1 should soon have little issue with live programming.

The executives at Fox Sports 1 have undoubtedly figured out that launching a sports television network, even a well-funded, high-profile one, is far from easy, a lesson its main competitor learned over a quarter century ago. But as the success of the network over in Bristol shows, an all-sports network can endure, even when it deviates from what made it successful.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.